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Each of the three challengers for Trimble County sheriff in the May 18 Primary Election have stressed the belief that residents need to know they can call on the sheriff or his deputies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Incumbent Tim Coons couldn’t agree more. He says that’s why he’s worked for nearly eight years to increase the staff in the sheriff’s office.
“I have been trying to meet that need, but you have to create enough revenue through the business side [of the office] to grow into that full-time service – and do it without creating a tax burden to citizens and a financial burden to the county,” he said in an interview Monday, April 19. “We have grown a little bit at a time, and have done so without increasing funding [from the county] by ensuring the fiscally sound operation of the sheriff’s office.”
Coons pointed out that when he took office in 2003, his staff included himself, office manager Vicky Butler and part-time Deputy Guy Gene Cutshaw.
Today, in addition to himself, Cutshaw, and current office manager Dana Liter, the office also includes Chief Bailiff Barry Welty; three full-time deputies, Dale Ralston (also a bailiff), Rich Knighten (who works for the department without pay] and Brian Denton; and two part-time deputies, Bo Simpson and Glen Powell.
Each of his deputies has a specialty, Coons said. Knighten brings expertise in security, administration and “an unbelievable amount of state and federal contacts and resources.” Simpson, an Oldham County resident, has 20 years of experience in road patrol and has investigated many types of crimes.
Denton, he continued, “is invaluable as the school resources officer” for the Trimble County School District; Powell is a computer specialist ... and Guy Gene’s strong suit is his length of time in the county. He is able to talk to people and is good at finding information for us.”
A retired KSP dispatcher, Ralston brings that expertise and is skilled in dealing with complaints received at the office.
“We have the whole gamut of what you need for a well-rounded sheriff’s office,” Coons said.
Liter, he added, annually gets the highest ratings on state audits of the office’s accounts and ensures all paperwork, including warrants and civil processes such as foreclosures, is entered properly into the computer system.
In fact, Coons said it is the efficiency of the entire staff that has enabled the office to expand.
To create the funding for additional staff, Coons said the office began actively filing for assest forfeiture in drug cases. (Please see sidebar for an explanation of asset forfeiture.) In one instance, he said, the office took over a forfeited house in a drug case and sold it at fair-market value, keeping the proceeds for its operational budget.
That budget is about $276,000 annually. Of that, the office receives $20,000 in supplemental funding from Trimble County Fiscal Court. The rest comes from the forfeitures, as well as fees earned serving warrants, civil papers, inspecting vehicles and collecting the county’s property taxes. The office earns 4 percent of the total of all taxes collected, Coons said.
Experience is a must
Coons began his law enforcement career in Martin County, Fla. There, he graduated from the Indian River Community College Police Academy and also was certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, he continued his training, including administration, investigation and interrogation techniques and narcotics detection.
Coons was elected sheriff in 2002, beating out six contenders – two of whom, Richey Dunlap and Paul Poe, are running against him again this year. He was re-elected in 2006, when he defeated Poe.
Coons said law-enforcement experience and training are a necessity for a rural county sheriff, and said his previous experience, combined with more than seven years in office, is an asset to the community.
Another requirement is communication and strong work ethic. “It’s important, being involved with the community over the past years and listening to people’s concerns on different issues. And, trying to be diligent working on those issues on a daily basis,” he said. “Taking the experience that I’ve had, along with my staff members’ [experience] ... gives the citizens of Trimble County the best opportunity to have a full-service sheriff’s office.”
And classroom training isn’t the only experience that counts, he added. “My job isn’t only to protect, but to serve. There are complaints that we receive on a daily basis that are not of a law-enforcement nature but are services.”
Examples of this, he said, include unlocking vehicles, requests for extra patrols, landlord/tenant complaints, animal complaints and helping people understand the law and their rights within the law.
“This job is not about how many people you put in jail, or the number of arrests or citations you issue,” he said. “This job is about trying to help people through difficult situations and times in their life.”
For example, he said, someone caught speeding in the county isn’t always ticketed. “Our goal is to try to get the driver to slow down.”
When handling domestic disputes, “you have to know what works and what doesn’t work. Every situation is a little different. You have to know how to mitigate those situations without getting personally involved.”
Coons considered some of the criticisms of his office and his own tenure that have been lobbed by some of his challengers and detractors.
First, he admitted that there have been times when he may not have responded to calls in a reasonable amount of time, but said he does his best not to let that happen.
“That would make anyone upset, and I understand that. I never do that intentionally,” he said. “If they took the time to call the sheriff’s office, then they deserve a response from me.”
But, he said, some days the job can be very overwhelming. “I can have five things going on in the office at the same time, plus phone calls and people coming in to see me,” he said. “I’ll say this. There is never a day when I can go in, prop my feet on the desk and play on my computer. It’s a very busy office. ... When you’re that busy, you’re gonna forget to make a phone call.”
He also is very accessible, contrary to criticism he’s heard. “People call me at my home all the time. My phone rings all the time,” he said. “When I get home at 8 or 10 at night, there are messages on my phone. I have to return those calls, and sometimes it requires you to go back out.”
Coons said anytime there is a “hot” call – a crime in progress, he responds. And he responds to “any and all fatalities.”
Coons also said his office has a strong presence in the schools. “We do work with our youth daily,” he said. “We’re dealing with kids who have problems. And I have the best resource officer available [Denton] to help with situations there.”
He agrees that every young person who breaks the law doesn’t need to be arrested.
“We try to learn what causes a child to act the way he does and try to find the right avenue or resource that specializes in handling that issue and address it,” he said. “When all else fails, then we have to get the courts involved and correct those traits before the child becomes an adult.”
The criticism that Coons plays favorites also is untrue, he said.
“I don’t believe in favoritism and I’m always telling my guys to treat people the same across the board. I treat everyone the same and treat them fairly. Because, you know what? Good people make bad decisions sometimes.”
As for hiring deputies from Trimble County, Coons said he has done that and cited Brian Denton as an example.
The drawback for hiring anyone without previous experience and training, however, is time.
“Unfortunately, the time it takes to send someone to the academy and field-train them is two to two-and-a-half years before that person is really able to go out and handle the wide variety of complaints we receive,” he said. “A lot of people here would love to be lawmen, but I don’t have the ability to wait.”
Coons said he wants to continue as sheriff for a number of reasons. “You can’t take the position of sheriff as a job. It has to be a love; you have to be emotionally attached, because it is so demanding it consumes your life.”
“I’m thankful to be sheriff, and I’d love the opportunity to [continue to] do this job.